“Near-limitless Energy” from Nuclear Fusion? Not so Fast!

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Breakthrough in nuclear fusion could mean ‘near-limitless energy’”, reports the well-respected Guardian newspaper this week. “Researchers managed to release more energy than they put in: a positive gain known as ignition.”

Wow! That’s incredible! I mean that literally, that is so huge that it is not credible. I do not believe it. 

Okay, let me start by saying that I am NOT a nuclear physicist. In fact I am no kind of physicist at all. I took calculus my senior year of high school and I remember NOTHING. I think I got a B? I also got what I suspect is the only bachelor of science degree in the United States that does not require graduates to take a single college-level math course. Go ahead and look back through the past ten years of videos I’ve made for this channel and I challenge you to find three that deal with high level physics or mathematics. The reason is because I know when I’m out of my depth. I do not swim in the deep end of rocket science. I happily float over here, in the soothing hot tub of biology and psychology and whatnot.

But here’s something I DO know a bit about: free energy. “Free energy” is the idea that you can somehow get more energy out of a system than what you put in, and it has long been considered the magical key to a future utopia where we are no longer reliant on things like fossil fuels, where we don’t need to release carbon into the atmosphere, and where we can easily send spaceships to explore the furthest reaches of our galaxy. It has also long been a big old scam: for as long as I’ve been critically evaluating extraordinary claims, I’ve seen a new invention pop up every few years that claims to violate the laws of physics. Steorn was an early example in my life, a company that in 2006 claimed to have created Orbo, a machine that offered “free, clean and constant energy.” They were so sure that they had done it that they took out an ad in the Economist inviting scientists to test the device. Hundreds of scientists responded, the company chose a jury, they tested it and found “Steorn’s attempts to demonstrate the claim have not shown the production of energy. The jury is therefore ceasing work.” Oops.

It sounds to me like Steorn truly believed they had invented free energy, and there are a LOT of amateur physicists over the years who have fooled themselves. But it is a scam, and so there are also plenty of people over the years who have used the idea of free energy to separate people (and businesses and governments) from their money. Josef Papp was an interesting character – back in the ‘60s he claimed to have invented a car engine that could operate without gas for six months before needing to be “recharged.” Richard Feynman wanted to see it work so he went to a demonstration. According to Feynman, at the demonstration the machine (which was obviously an electric motor on a battery) exploded and killed one observer and injured two others, though we only have Feynman’s word on that. Papp accused Feynman of purposely destroying the engine and tried to sue him, and CalTech ended up settling with him out of court. Papp went on to continue collecting money from investors but would never show another engine again.

What I’m saying is that while I may not be a nuclear physicist, I do know that you can’t get something for nothing. Yes, I know physicists have been working on fusion for some time now, and I know that this Guardian headline would be the greatest possible result of that work, but I also know that we are nowhere near this right now. So what’s really going on? Like, this is a real newspaper, not the Daily Fail. They wouldn’t promote an obvious scam, right?

So, this news all stems from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory right here in the Bay Area. They’ve been studying fusion, which is the way that our sun “makes” energy: as They Might Be Giants once told us, “The Sun Is A Miasma Of Incandescent Plasma” where hydrogen is fused into helium to produce a massive amount of energy, which we see as light and feel as heat. It would be great to be able to do this here on Earth because we’d get all that energy with none of the nasty radioactive waste we’re left with thanks to fission, but fusion requires truly ridiculous amount of heat – that’s why one of the common free energy scams is called “cold fusion.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could have fusion without all that annoying heat? Sure would! Too bad we can’t.

But there are other ways around it, and that’s where this week’s news comes in. Scientists have used some neat tricks, like the ITER project in France, which uses giant magnets to create their own miasma of plasma to fuse particles.

At the NIF they’re trying a different tactic of firing hydrogen pellets at 200 lasers, which leads to about 50 explosions every second, which produces heat which is, you know, energy.

The goal of all these experiments is to reach a Q of 1. “Q” is the symbol scientists use to indicate “energy gain,” which is just the amount of energy you get out of a system divided by the amount of energy you put into the system. If you get a “1” from that equation, that means you break even. If you get a higher number, congratulations baby, you’ve got free energy!

Last year, the NIF announced they had reached a Q of .7, and in a rather stunning leap forward this week they announced that they had reached the break even point: Q=1, and even a little extra energy out to achieve “ignition.” “Holy crap,” you may think, “if they keep that rate up then that means by next year we’re all taking a vacation to Pluto!” 

Unfortunately, no. Now, this isn’t a scam a la Josef Papp, but there do seem to be some experts who are alarmingly okay with allowing the public to be confused about what “Q” and “break even” really mean. You see, when NIF says they’ve achieved a Q of 1 they mean that the amount of energy they put directly into that hydrogen pellet has equaled the amount of energy they got out of it. The other and much more important number is the true “Q_total:” this number takes into account the total amount of energy you put into the project. For instance, how much energy did it take to turn on those lasers? NIF is running 192 high-powered lasers, which require a lot more energy than the 1.1 net megajoule they produced in their experiment.

To make matters worse, the energy they got out was heat. If we want to use that as energy, we need to transfer that heat into electricity, which is not an efficient process. In fact, we’ll probably lose about half of our energy just doing that.

So while it’s great that NIF hit this milestone, it’s not anywhere close to the milestone that we need to see in order to even begin to get excited about fusion as a scientifically feasible source of energy.

I mentioned that it’s not a Josef Papp-esque problem, but I do see some connections. It’s not just mainstream news outlets like the Guardian who are getting it all wrong about the Q value. Last year, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossfelder made a video in which she points out that several of the people in charge of these experiments have publicly made misleading statements about the energy output of these experiments, and while I’m not in their heads, it’s not hard to understand why they might be tempted to do so. NIF’s press release includes the great news that Chuck Schumer is “proud to announce today that (he’s) helped to secure the highest-ever authorization of over $624 million this year in the National Defense Authorization Act for the ICF program to build on this amazing breakthrough.” Wow, that’s a lot of money!

Is it too much money? Is this a pipe dream that will never actually pay off? That I can’t say. Personally I’d be fine with half a billion dollars of taxpayer money going towards fusion research because we’d still have plenty of money leftover for other research if we just stop, say, funding the military industrial complex. And I sympathize with scientists who are working on something they’re passionate about, that could one day (in the very distant future) change the world for the better, but it’s hard to get the general public and the government to care.

But I don’t sympathize with misleading people to get that funding and that attention. So no, sorry to once again be a buzzkill but we aren’t anywhere near to achieving fusion energy as of right now.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. Very nice write up. I’m in my mid 60’s and, for as long as I can remember, advocates of fusion reactors have overpromised and underproduced. Charlie Brown should really learn not to try and kick that football.

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